Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New Music from Old Friends

By Peter Rodman

I pretty much stopped doing record reviews the minute I could, which was...well, many millions of minutes ago They were my first 'way in' to the newsprint business, and very soon after that, I began doing feature stories on personalities as disparate as I could wrangle--or as I used to like to tout it, "from Ali to Zappa."
But you grow older, and now there's no room for an old fool like me on the radio, TV, or in newspapers (do they even exist?) anymore...so, like many folks my age, I do this just for fun now.
That's why some of these blogs run a little long--Hey, no editor to take a hatchet to my work!!!  And that's why I'll even drop an 'f-bomb' now and then, just to remind myself I can.
So, no...Peter Rodman doesn't do record reviews.
It's beneath him.

Okay.  Scratch that.
Maybe I do; yet another lesson learned.
Not one, but three old friends (and killer musicians) have recently issued CDs I thought you might like to hear about.  For one thing, I can relate--because although each is a bona fide working/touring musician, I get the distinct feeling these CDs were each made just because they felt like it.
So here are three fresh CD reviews, from a biased observer, who considers each of these guys a world-class player and a real friend, but who--remember, now--doesn't do record reviews.

Be careful around Steve Conn.
In case you don't know him, he has eyes that look right through you. Some folks might find that scary about him, but the truth is, he's no 'bird of prey' at all--just "a soul who's intentions are good," as the song says, but one who's suffered the slings-and-arrows of every known scam and slight the music business has to offer--and after 40 years or so, he's a no-bullshit, no-compromises kinda guy.
His personal charm is in there, but again...you might not see the 'sweet spot,' if you don't look closely enough. 
Oh.  Just a second...I'm sorry!  I was talking about my friend Steve Conn, not the musician Steve Conn.
Forgive me.  That's all wrong, what you just read. 
Well...most of it, anyway.
Because within his music, you will find not only everything he wants to express, but a whole lot of what you want to say, too.  Watch one of his shows, especially from the front few rows, and just...listen.
You'll feel none of the aforementioned trepidation, only a welcome bath of stuff (charm? no, something deeper) that washes over your soul, in ways not too much new music does, these days. 
But before I get to his new album, Beautiful Dream, let me review a little personal history. And I'm not gonna bother googling anything.  It's just stuff I know, or I think I know, and it informs my view of this music in, hopefully, some way you mightn't have thought of, without my help.  

I first saw him back in the late '70s in Boulder, Colorado. He fronted a band of authentic gypsy players (no, not actual gypsies...dammit--bear with me, here!) who themselves played in other outfits around town (and elsewhere) for the money, but for whom "Gris-Gris" (Steve's band) became a musician's band. 

A refuge, if you will.
These days you see that a lot, especially here in Nashville--lotsa guys allegedly 'slumming,'  in what can only be called dressed-up 'tribute' (or oldies) bands, in conglomerations "outside of their regular gigs," that have somehow become their regular gigs. 
In some ways, it's become 'the senior circuit' for great players who couldn't figure out how else to coax their 50+ year-old friends off the couch and outta the house anymore, besides playin' other peoples' oldies.
But this is where Steve Conn's always been a little...well...different.  (For example, he calls his 'record company' Not Really Records.)
See, he was onto this "Let's just play some great stuff we like" thing, decades ago--not as an old man, but as a young man.  Or an 'old soul'...not sure which. 
Well, actually, I am sure which.
Infused with his Louisiana roots, Gris-Gris brought flavors to Boulder that even some seasoned music veterans (okay...I) hadn't yet seen, at that point.  

'The Mezzanine' at the Hotel Boulderado
That's the piano, beneath the second window.
For much of his decade-plus residency in Boulder, Conn manned the piano at the Hotel Boulderado's 'Mezzanine' bar --a classic, turn-of-the-century edifice that made Aspen's more fabled Hotel Jerome seem almost like a dump, by comparison.  And a funny thing happened along the way, during that punk/new wave/reggae/rowdy country-rock time:  
'The Mezz,' as we then called it, became a destination all its own, strictly because of Steve Conn. 
A place to hear something real
It was a place to put aside the trendy, remove your cowboy hat, forget about Elvis Costello for a minute (something even Elvis himself hadn't thought of...yet) and simply breathe out.  
You went to the Boulderado to let Steve do the drivin', and he'd deliver something different, every single night.
He only had a few 'originals' in his repertoire back then, but you got the sense there were lots more, in his pocket--they just hadn't made the cut.  (Apparently, those critical eyes work on him, too.) 
So, for six nights a week, he sat there--and basically ignored the few drunks from outta town on business, until the local scenesters began to drift in, for something beyond the beyond.  His between-song patter was kept to a minimum, invariably self-effacing, and just this side of cynical.

This was a man who knew who he was, even then--sitting at a piano, pouring his energy into nothing but the music, rarely even making eye contact, and busily crafting something you simply could not find anywhere else, with his eyes closed--and who knows, maybe even 'with one hand tied behind his back.'
He was that good. 
Folks like Bonnie Raitt and Beau Soleil knew it, but on a snowy Tuesday night in downtown Boulder, most of the action was down the street, at Potter's or the Blue Note--not up here, overlooking a hotel lobby. 
Still, this guy just showed up and played--and then he showed up and played some more, and he kept showing up, until he built a hard-core of followers (mostly those swoonin' wimmenfolk, for some-odd reason), until he'd outlasted them all.
Watching him sing or speak, it almost seemed like Steve knew something we didn't know  ("Thinking in Tongues" is one of his new titles, and that fits...) but some three decades later, I think I finally may have figured it out:  It's that history will select its winners, but those of us with our ears and eyes open will find the really important stuff. 
For Steve Conn, opportunity may have knocked a few times, but it didn't seem to have the secret password.  A rare few in this world are willing to forego the camaraderie of a large community of artists, to paint alone.
And that is how I always pictured Steve.

Photos of Steve Conn by Jack Spencer
Fast-forward to now.  We've both been here in Music City goin' on 20 years or so, and on those few occasions when I can coax him into my one-and-only party of the year, at Christmas time, he'll share a knowing glance, as the discussion turns to music. I've been out to his country home in the boonies, and it's everything you need, if you've decided to stop playin' the game, and do things your way.  

Fifteen years ago, I thought Steve Conn had already made his definitive album.
River of Madness was a disparate collection of original songs, which contained the requisite 'hit' I could persuade my programmers at Lightning 100 to play ("Mardi Gras Morning") and enough other good stuff to say it was definitely a keeper. But like the album title suggests, there was a disturbing quality to it all, as if to say, "I'm not really settled yet. This internal war I'm having isn't really over."
Ten years later, his "Katrina Christmas" single came out, with some seriously venomous lyrics about "hangin' Brownie from his toes" that, despite its jolly New Orleans gait (and my fervent agreement with its message) made it impossible to include, on my annual Christmas CD collection.  (Note to Steve: I do have elderly Aunts, you know...)
Anyway, I've only seen him a couple times in the past few years, but I must say, he seemed more at ease, and more affably bemused than offended, by the creaks of age.  And if his new collection of songs is any indication, he's more comfortable in his shoes than I've ever known him to be.  (My copy of the new CD came with a personal inscription on a "Viagra" post-it notepad, that says "Viagra...step up to the plate.")  

Most of us have enough music in our stashes now, that anything "new" had better say something we haven't already heard before.     
Steve Conn has achieved that and more, on the magnificent Beautiful Dream.
His inner dialogue (I always knew something was goin' on in there!) runs through every song, like this bit, from the radio-friendly "Trouble": 
"Should I mow the lawn?/Should I save the planet?" 
(As Dave Letterman likes to say on his show when he's just heard a great band, "That's all you need, right there.")
But it's the very next couplet takes it somewhere else: 
"Should I lose some weight?/Sometimes I wonder, 'What difference does it make?"
What starts as a simple reflection on one's place in the world, works its way back to mortality itself being your very best reason to let go and continue the slog-- i.e., enjoy this life, best ya' can. 
Don't let go because you're sick, or you're leaving, or you're bitter...just let go because you're still here, and all that other stuff simply doesn't matter anymore. 
This theme runs through much of the material on Beautiful Dream, but with melodies as pretty as "It's Just Not the Same," Conn has achieved a new level of beauty, not at all far from Randy Newman's best recent work.
"The Earth spins/the wind blows/the sky is blue/it's just not the same here, without you..." could stand beside almost anything I've heard in recent years, by anyone.
The first track I heard from this album was "Let the Rain Fall Down," recorded a couple years ago. I remember being pleasantly surprised at the whole piece--no, the whole peace--of it.  But as good as it was/is, I hadn't expected so many other new Steve Conn songs to come along and match it. 
Somebody's been busily 'holed up' out there in the sticks, writing what amounts to his definitive musical manifesto.  Conn's old mate Sonny Landreth is along for the ride on slide, as is a perfectly understated ensemble you'll hardly notice...until you do.  (The late Dennis Taylor appears on sax, as well.)
Key tracks: "Trouble," "It's Just Not the Same"
"Let the Rain Fall Down"
You can give this music a listen
 (and even, Holy Smokes, ORDER IT!) at:
This is a man in full--finally, and almost gleefully expressing his melancholy, without bitterness or even pedestrian resignation. Nobody's gettin' hung by their toes anymore.
It's wisdom, man...that inadvertent reward that (hopefully) comes to us all, after enough burns on the proverbial stove.  
Conn's always had it, more than most--but as a pretentious dude who likes to think I possess a little of it myself, I must say, I've found more than a few 'teachable moments' on Beautiful Dream.  It's good enough to humble ya.  

My favorite albums of 2011 have almost all been by classic songwriters, updating their old material--Jimmy Webb, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Ray Davies--each presenting freshly introspective readings of their best-known work, with arrangements better suited to older ears. 
Steve Conn's Beautiful Dream sits alongside any of them on my "best of" list--and that's with all new songs, not remakes.  That it can stand beside the aforementioned giants is indeed something.
This is not just a 'keeper' (I've always expected at least that much, from him)--it's an essential musical friend, added to my already-crowded collection of friends, which has now been welcomed into my life, for the duration. 
This is his very best work, and it's one CD you should definitely own.  When I first put it on my computer, the program described him as "Unknown Artist."
If that's ever going to change for Steve Conn--and it should--Beautiful Dream is about as good a reason as any.
A must-have.

I guess I first met Russell Bizzett around 1974, when he was playing with the late guitar legend Tommy Bolin, in Boulder.  Back then, his perfectly sculpted 'fro was impeccably round, yet somehow--like Russell himself--elegantly understated.  
He always shared the stage with legends, and sometimes each of those legends would lose their cool...but never Russell.  Be it Freddie Hubbard, Bo Diddley, Bolin, Billy Preston, Jimmy Smith, Robben Ford, you name it--Bizzett's confident sweeps, from cymbals to toms, laid down a solid platform for them to leap from.
But as soft-spoken as he was, there were times during every show, when folks in the audience would stand aghast at some audacious move he pulled off, that nobody expected.
It was like, "Where did that come from!" 
This guy was clearly schooled in drums.  

There's no doubt that Boulder in the '70s was a musician's paradise, but to be honest, there were very few drummers allowed to paint with more than a few musical colors, back then.  There'd be your showy, country-rock stud; the jam-band wannabe; the rock-steady social climber, you know--they were all around, everywhere you looked.  But somewhere in there, Russell managed to ferret out the few who had an interest in something larger, something that might last beyond a single evening. (Truth be told, many Boulder evenings  all too literally stretched into another evening for some lesser players, back then.)

Any band in Colorado would have gladly had him, if only for his unusual reliability and professionalism.  But that was never the point.  Why prop up some lesser players, even if the money was good, only to support lesser music? 
Behind his casual front, this guy was serious about sound. 
All of the brightly colored hair feathers and guitar gadgets in the world wouldn't have kept Russell Bizzett's attention for a nano-second, had there not been an intriguing musical journey to join, with Tommy Bolin. 
There was, and he did.

When I think of Bizzett as a musician, I think of the word "standards."  Not in the classic sense, like songs that are standards...but more as in "standards you set, and achieve."
Bizzett's every appearance onstage, even back then, seemed to set a new standard.  I can remember his fellow drummers standing with me in sound booths at the back of a club, truly reveling in the joy his touch provided, from behind the kit.

Order Russell Bizzett's latest album at:
Still, Boulder could not hold him.  Not only was the scene waning by the mid-80s, but it seemed Bizzett had bigger things in mind.  His personal journey had begun in Sioux City, Iowa--growing up near Bolin and many other eventual greats.  I won't recite his bio here (for that, you can visit www.russellbizzett.com), but his heart belonged to the musical legacy he'd heard throughout his family.  By the age of 20, he'd already backed up Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.
Here's what's funny:
I always sorta knew he loved John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, and all the other nitty-gritty greats everybody pays lip service to, but few really know.  I knew this, because when Russell was upstairs at The Good Earth (3rd floor) doing an afternoon soundcheck with Tommy, I might go upstairs, or he might come down, because my afternoon radio show (on KRNW, 2nd floor) often coincided with the load-in.
So when Bizzett showed up, he'd more or less gravitate toward our massive jazz collection (on vinyl, you'll remember).  That, plus more than a few musical hints, told me Mr. Bizzett's affinities and talents were not being fully mined, in the foothills of Colorado.

Enter L.A.; enter San Diego; add 25 years, and stir.
The Russell Bizzett Trio has just issued the marvelous Dream Street, which puts his compadres through their paces in fine fashion.  Pianist Joshua White has the light touch of Tyner and the chordal ghosts of Oscar Peterson well in hand, and bassist Rob Thorsen plays prodigiously (and fast) enough to remind me of the old Richard Pryor routine, wherein a guy in Patti LaBelle's band plays his ass off, but keeps urgently nodding to the rest, as if to say (in Pryor's words) "I'm witcha, M&tha f&%kas!" That, he is.

Bizzett has fashioned a highly listenable collection of challenging but satisfying stuff, which I like to call "Sunday music."  It's precisely what I like to listen to, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, with sun streaming in the windows, leaves falling outside, and a warm cup of tea to accompany a nice, long article...kinda like this one, mebbe?  Okay, mebbe not.

Bizzett's few solos aren't showy at all, but I dare anyone with less than his 40+ years at it to try any of it.  The trio's take on Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do" is nothing shy of brilliant.  I have no doubt that, were we still a listening society, this would be up there with anything that ever came out of the late '50s. 
These guys are sublime.
If you like jazz at all, novice or not, this should fit the bill...a perfect bass/drums/piano outfit, touching on, but never imitating the greats, because they're too busy creating something great, all their own. 
Highly recommended.

There are certain characters in life you might never expect to get to know, but once you do, they bring something so unique to the table, that you realize you couldn't possibly replace that human being with anyone else. 
Jay Patten is one of those guys.
Oh, sure...he's got the resume.  After over 30 years on the road as Crystal Gayle's musical director, Jay's pedigree has taken him all over the world.  
Like all band leaders, he seems able to instill confidence even in the most under-rehearsed, unwieldy group of players--as he has, at every single Bluebird Cafe anniversary and Christmas show, for over two decades. 
For some reason, with Jay at the helm, everyone shines.

What's fascinating is that he could have made it just as a sax player, had he chosen that route.  By that I mean, he didn't have to be a band leader, at all--he's easily one of the best players on his chosen instrument, in the whole world.  And I don't say that lightly.

To sample or order tracks from Crystal Nights, go to:
But the thing about this guy, is that you really need to watch him for a whole evening (or more) on stage, before you can even begin to figure out what it is about him, that grabs you.
Once you do that, you'll realize that this fellow would be a great candidate for the back page of a Reader's Digest: 
"My most unforgettable character."

His ever-present fedora belies a very un-casual approach to life.  Jay's an unsatisified soul--always thinking about the next gig, the next tour, the next arrangement, the next song.  
And while he loves a good joke, he's not one to laugh hysterically at all.  In fact, Jay always seems to be deep in thought, when he's not performing.
It's almost as if he'd feel guilty if he let go--because there's work to do, and dammit...somebody's gotta do it.   
In person, he has a slight hunch to the posture, as if he so loved Sinatra's saloon songs, he took on their every burden. 
And that's just it.  
Jay Patten's unburdening comes in only one place:  On stage.
He escapes all of life's trevails, and suddenly the guy you guessed was droopy or droll becomes twenty pounds lighter, thirty years younger, and in all honesty, pretty much timeless
Yeah, there's plenty of schtick:  Wife jokes, one-liners, and head-scratchers--like including the Elvis bathos, "Can't Help Falling in Love" on the current album, complete with an in-studio "Thankyouverrrymuch" at the end.
But Jay Patten without schtick would be like a Brown's hamburger, with no ketchup.
The sheer breadth of his own compositions is impressive. 
That's evident on the title track to Crystal Nights,  even as a few of his more croony efforts, like "Finally" and "Sinatra Sang our Song," take you to another whole time and place.
Offstage, though...he has perfected that "I'm just another schmo" attitude, almost as though everything else in life is simply the unbearable wait, until that next show.
I've made no secret in the past about my belief, that Wednesday nights at Brown's Diner are the most musical thing you can do, in Music City.
(Here's a link to the 19 minute video I made, documenting Jay's remarkable combo at Brown's Diner, on a typical Wednesday night: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1633464679537)
In a dive bar that holds dozens, not hundreds, 'the Jay Patten Four' hold court, from 8:30 to 10:30, and there's no admission charge at all.  Every player in the band is extraordinary.
And if Crystal Nights doesn't embody the full bouqet of his live act, when it comes to Jay Patten's talents, it's certainly an album that'll make you feel better. 
It'll cure what ails ya.
This article is Copyright 2011 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.

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